Trigger Warning for discussion of sexual assault (not explicit).
Let’s be real. Sexual assault is pervasive. It happens often. And it happens to people we care about, whether we know about it or not.
Grappling with that fact can be outrageous enough, but here’s the real clincher: Given the horrifying realities of sexual assault, if you happen to be a sexually active individual (or if you plan to ever be one), there’s a high probability that you will have sex with a survivor at one point or another. (And that probability gets even higher if you identify as queer and/or male.)
So what can you do with that acknowledgment? You might be thinking: it’s in the past, it doesn’t have anything to do with me, so there’s nothing I can do about it. Nope! False. You certainly can’t change the fact that it happened. But there is, on the contrary, so much you can do about it.
As their intimate partner, you are in a unique position to help them beyond simply being a good friend. The level on which you interact with them is the same level on which they were violated. What you say and do on this level can make a huge difference, and that’s a responsibility that you can either accept or respectfully decline. But I know from speaking with others on this subject that most of people’s reluctance to act on this responsibility comes from their being at a loss for what to do.
This is why I’ve compiled a list of tips for you that I hope will prove to be useful. If you strive to be a supportive intimate partner to a survivor of sexual assault, I would advise you to:
- Believe them. If your partner discloses to you that they have been a victim of sexual assault, it is of the utmost importance that you believe them. Don’t be skeptical of their claim. Recognize that the social landscape we live in has made it so that survivors feel silenced and blamed for their attack. And if they’re anything like me, they might very well be entering into every sexual encounter assuming from the get-go that their partner will doubt the reality of their experiences — whether that doubt is ever expressed aloud or not. That being said, I know that saying the words “I believe you” might feel a bit awkward — or even unnecessary, if you think it should be obvious. But it’s not. If you can, try saying it directly. They need to know for sure. The goal should be to make your partner feel safe when they’re alone with you, and making a wholly unambiguous statement such as “I believe you” will serve as a huge step in that direction. (It’s even better than “Gosh, I’m really sorry,” even though that one probably seems more instinctive.) **HaifischGeweint made a good observation in the comments about saying “I’m sorry.” It’s far better to thank your partner for telling you about the assault than it is to apologize for hearing about it. A survivor is entrusting you with this information, and it’s the act of disclosure that you ought to feel grateful for. I know that saying “I’m sorry” feels natural to us, but it’s conventionally an expression of pity, and survivors should not be made to feel pitiful. They should, instead, be made to feel honorable — both for surviving and for having the courage to speak out.
- Ask the right questions. I know that when you hear someone say something like “I was raped,” you might be curious about the details. Rape can manifest in so many forms, after all, and since the victim is someone you know, you’re probably wondering a lot of things. When did it happen? Where did it happen? Who’s the fucking shithead that would do such a thing? But it’s important to recognize that not every survivor is going to be comfortable disclosing the details of the assault, and even if they are, there are more productive questions you can ask. For instance, more likely than not, sexual assault survivors experience triggers. Triggers can happen in any situation, really, and it all depends on the kind of trauma that took place. However, if you’re going to be engaging in sexual activity with a survivor of sexual assault, there’s a good chance that you will run into a triggering situation with them — during a very inopportune moment (ahem) — and it’s going to be scary and difficult to deal with. They might cry. They might have a panic attack. They might dissociate. And they might be just as lost about how to cope with it as you are. These situations can sometimes be avoided (not always, but a lot of the time) if you know specifically what your partner’s triggers are. So you might try asking them, “Do you have any triggers I should know about, so that I can better accommodate you?” And be patient with them as they formulate a response, because depending on where they are on their own journey toward understanding and recovering from what happened, they might not have a firm handle on it themselves. Another thing about this, though, is that triggers are often embarrassing. Not only when they occur, but also just the fact that something so seemingly innocuous could be triggering is really humiliating. This is one reason why your partner might not offer you the information unsolicitedly, and why it’s important to ask for it yourself. This will show them that a) you’re informed enough on the subject of sexual assault to engage in a serious conversation about it, and b) that you really care to know how you can help. It’s also why you should suspend any and all judgment when you hear the answer to that question. Your partner’s trigger/s might be as simple as a word, or a gesture, or a sex act that you might think is harmless. But to your partner, it is a big deal. So take it seriously! And try to accommodate them as much as you can. You won’t always be able to, and that’s okay, they’ll understand. But your effort and your consideration will be tremendously appreciated.
- Don’t minimize their feelings. In making this point, I feel compelled to share some wisdom I received directly from one of the counselors from the support group I attended this past February. I had been expressing my concerns to her about feeling as though I was being unreasonable for setting certain boundaries for myself and for feeling certain feels. In response to that admission, she said to me (and I paraphrase): “Sexual assault is the most invasive traumatic experience that a person can have. So whatever boundaries you’re setting … it is Fair. You have every right to feel the way you’re feeling.” This is as important a concept for survivors to grasp as it is for their intimate partners to do so. Because it’s a tough one. And it’s so painfully true. Sexual assault is real, and it’s visceral, and the feelings that come after are doubly so. Keep in mind that your partner is the one who experienced the trauma, so it is your partner who gets to decide how they feel. You might never understand why they can’t participate in certain activities, or why they have to react so lividly to certain pronouncements. But no matter your personal opinion, it is important to understand that they are not “overreacting.” And no matter how counterintuitive it might be, you’re going to have to take that on trust.
- Be willing to listen. I mentioned previously that not every survivor is going to feel comfortable opening up, but you might encounter just the opposite as well. Personally, I got to the point where I was positively itching to talk to my partner/s about what had happened, about how it had affected me, and about what I needed from them, but I felt like I couldn’t bring it up, because the topic of rape tends to make most people feel a little squeamish (and understandably so). That being said, it’s important that a survivor be allowed to express themselves if they need to, because it can be one of the most crucial components to healing when the timing is right. Make a point of telling them that if they want to talk about it, you’re willing to listen. (Then again, it’s perfectly acceptable to not want to hear anything about it. I’ll speak more on that in my final bullet point.)
- Don’t take it personally. There might come a time when your partner breaks down, or shuts down, or gets anxious or angry or depressed, and you won’t be able to understand why. In those times, it’s very important to remind yourself that it’s not about you, because your partner may not be in a state to reassure you of that. You might feel helpless, because not only are these outbursts out of your partner’s control, but they’re also out of your control. And you may be the only one around with the presence of mind to process them, but you still won’t have the tools to do so. Forgive yourself for that. The most you can do for your partner in those times is be available to them. Ask them what they need from you, and if the answer is nothing, accept that. You’ll be able to talk about it later, so just make sure to remind yourself in the moment that you’re doing everything you can, and you’re neither to blame for their trauma nor for the effects of their trauma.
- Be patient and forgiving. This is really a tip for everybody. Regardless of your partner’s sexual history, you should be patient and forgiving. We are all on different schedules. And when there’s trauma involved, the healing process will prove itself to be a long one, so do try to proceed at a pace that your partner finds comfortable. Check in with them frequently, but let them set the pace themselves. And keep in mind that not every survivor of sexual assault will feel comfortable disclosing their survivor status to their intimate partners, so you may very well not even be aware that you’re in the company of one of us. So maybe you’re sleeping with someone who sometimes appears disconnected and distant, right in the middle of the act. Or maybe they suddenly disengage from the sexual activity and excuse themselves from the room for a while. Or maybe they start to cry, but they don’t say why, they just keep apologizing over and over and really throw you for a loop. Don’t dismiss them offhandedly as “crazy.” Consider the possibility that they may be battling a demon unbeknownst to you, and they’re so busy fighting it that they don’t see you as a potential ally in their struggle. If you don’t ask, you’ll never know. And what’s worse is they’ll never know either that it can get better.
- Be true to yourself! All of this aside, you are your own person, and your self-care is just as important as your partner’s. If you come to the conclusion that, for whatever reason, you’re not willing to continue your intimate relationship with your partner due to the heavy circumstances, that is entirely your prerogative, and you should not feel as though you have to assume that responsibility if you don’t want to. I understand that it can be intense, and it can be extremely tricky. And maybe you have enough intensity in your life at the moment, or maybe you just don’t feel comfortable or capable of being the sexual partner they need. That’s really okay. But do try to leave the lines of communication open about that and be gentle with their feelings. Tell them that it’s not their fault, that it’s just a bad time, or that they deserve the kind of attention that you’re simply not able to provide. Because they have a hard enough time living with the effects of sexual assault trauma without feeling as though they’re driving everyone around them away. But do listen to yourself, and take care of yourself — there’s certainly no shame in seeking out counseling for yourself either — and make the choice that best suits you, because sex should never be an obligation.
That’s a start, at least. If you’re a survivor yourself, or if you’ve been an intimate partner of a sexual assault survivor, please leave any additional insight you undoubtedly have in the comments below!
Go forth and be careful with one another. <3